A blue popsicle stain ran across the boy’s cheek like a bruise, and his band-aided chin covered a scrape, probably acquired during a game of tag which ended abruptly when skin met pavement. I remember being a boy his age, and I’d had a few cops set me straight for small infractions. Now the roles were reversed as the lights from my cruiser threw an alternating red and blue tint on the brim of his cowboy hat, which was scraped and dirty, brown and dirt brown from backyard roughhousing. His shirt was grass-stained, and his jeans, ripped at the knee, were held up by a shiny belt buckle in the form of a long horned bull.
It was a comical scene, me a grown man, officer of the law standing above a five-year-old on the side of the road. I pulled him over as he drove his battery-powered truck west on route 47. He didn’t stop right away either. I had to run up beside him to slow him down. Unspeakable tenacity for a kid his age. I finally managed to get his attention much how you’d expect, “Whoa! Hey, buddy! What do you think you’re doing, little man?”
He didn’t even respond at first. He held his stare on the horizon and took in a long breath, knowing he was into some trouble he didn’t want, almost despising it with an arrogant flair. This kid and his oversized, undersized truck didn’t want to give me the time of day. I suppose a child’s imagination knows no bounds, nor roles of social authority. I continued with the questions.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Still, not a glance at me. His blue lips hardened as he held his grip on his plastic steering wheel. He only uttered a few simple words, but the delivery was unlike that of any kid I’d ever seen, harnessing a Henry Fonda edge to his jawline that wasn’t there, squinting as the sun hung low above the mountains.
“Sheriff, if I don’t get to Red Rock by sundown, there’ll be real hell to pay.”
What kid talks like that? Surely he’d only been bipedal for a few years, and now he talked to a police officer like he was a hardened outlaw. He scratched the back of his neck and adjusted in his seat as if he’d been riding for hours.
“Red Rock? That’s miles from here,” I said. “Your mother let you speak like that, son?”
“My mother’s been in the grave since I was born, so I don’t reckon she has much to say about the matter.”
Now I was convinced. This was some kind of movie scene he had fallen in love with, an old black-and-white he pulled off the shelf of a film buff, re-enacting it in his youthful land of make-believe, where the edges of pretend and the real world blend more easily. Perhaps his parents had taken him on one too many trips to Bonnie Springs. He had the character down perfectly. A slight arrogance, a romantic appeal to some higher aim, imbued with the godly strength of the hero, will and temperament that couldn’t be broken, a stallion that tried as he might to live in the world of normal men but was born to run free with his eyes on the stars and hooves pushing up dust. His moral authority usurped all human institutions. The kid’s performance was impressive, and tickled me to death. This would be a story I could tell for years.
“You think you’re gonna make it all the way to Red Rock on this thing? Where’s your real horse, cowboy?”
“Stolen. The law could maybe get it back for me, but they don’t seem much concerned. They have better things to do,” he finally turned his gaze to me, “like hold up a man’s business — my business — which is no business of yours.”
His voice was rough, as if he’d just gotten over a cold, perhaps had a few days off school and filled with Children’s NyQuil, cartoons, and Minecraft videos, though if I didn’t know better I’d think he was the child of the Marlboro Man himself, with smoky vocal-chords genetically passed from gravel-throated father to son. His little, plastic pistol was holstered at his side, and he was kind enough to keep his hands where I could see them, though his flippant performance more than made up for his lack of authentic props.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Haha! Billy The Kid, is that right? I never thought I’d get the pleasure rounding up an outlaw as tough as you.”
The radio interrupted my amusement. “Base to 24…”
“Stay right there, Billy, and don’t try any of your fast moves. I’ll be right back.”
I walked back to the car. The station hadn’t gotten word of any missing kids in the neighborhood. “The Kid” must have taken an extra-long ride after dinner and his parents hadn’t yet discovered his absence — still a touch early for bedtime, I suppose. I knew I’d have to coax out the boy’s real name, and it was a good bet I already knew the family. I might even be able to get him home before the 10 o’clock news if I played his little game for a few minutes and got him to trust me. I walked back to the front of the car.
“Okay, Billy. The station says that—”
I stopped with a smile. There he was, standing in front of his tiny truck, still in character, with his unholstered, plastic six-shooter, and he was pointing it straight at me. I admit the visual was a bit shocking, even though the gun posed no threat. His hubris was unbelievable, and was surpassed only by the seriousness of his face. If this little boy could pull off a character like this at his age, he might easily rival the greatest tough-guy character actors of all time. If his parents didn’t get him to Hollywood, they were crazy. I expected he’d still make his own way no matter what, even if they were fool enough to shackle him to this small town.
Hilarious. I obliged, slowly raising my hands above my head, wearing the biggest grin I’d ever had in my life.
“Hey, that’s not fair. You have to give a man a fighting chance. We’re supposed to face-off like real men — a real gunfight, like this.” I widened my stance and did my best Marshal Kane, readying my hand for a quick draw. “See? You know how it goes. Then we draw, and the fastest man is left standing.”
The Kid just stared at me, expressionless as ever. “Then draw, sheriff. I’ll give you all the time you need.”
“Can’t do it, little man,” I said as I patted my holster. “I love a good game of outlaws, but an officer always keeps his pistol holstered unless he intends to use it.”
Then a strange feeling took me, and I patted my holster again. Looked down. Looked up. Looked down again. My service revolver was gone — absolutely gone. I patted again, feeling only empty leather and the most displaced confusion I’d ever experienced. My twenty years as a cop had shown me every strange character, every bizarre event this town had ever known, but nothing could have prepared me for the surreal place I now found myself in.
I had been staring at it the whole time. The Kid was holding my own service revolver, clutching it steady, heavy in both hands, and pointing at me with a fiery glare. Whatever intimidation the young man failed to evoke he completely made up for by holding my shining, Smith and Wesson, and I found myself alone in the lawlessness of a lonely desert. Through some impossible act or Serlingesque curiosity, I had been outgunned and subdued by a five-year-old in a plastic, motorized truck.
“I’ve had enough talking, sheriff. I have to get to Red Rock, and the reasons are bigger than the both of us. You’ve made your fair share of observations about me, and since you’re so good at making decisions about who I am, you get to decide one more thing. Either the two of us get to Red Rock by sundown, or I get there alone while you stay here and keep the pavement company. I’ve never killed a man of the law before. Now you decide, sheriff. Am I a man who gets to Red Rock, or am I a cop killer?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said, completely dumbstruck.
In response, Billy leveraged both of his thumbs and pulled back the hammer, dead-faced, never breaking his stern, upward gaze. “Don’t make me into something I’m not.”
I had fooled myself long enough. Whether The Kid was under some crazy delusion or not, what choice did I have? There was no more explaining it away. In some way, he was right. This thing had now become bigger than the both of us, and the stakes were higher than I was willing to bet on. I looked up at him with wide eyes.
“I guess we’re going to Red Rock.”
The orange sun burned my forehead as I drove towards it, my eyes squinting to see the edges of the road through the glare. Billy sat beside me, still wearing his dirty hat. I was kind enough to keep my hands where he could see them. The thoughts of this young man being an actor in a Western film vanished as I looked in the rear-view mirror, his tiny truck getting smaller in the distance.
I glanced over at The Kid with his ripped jeans and tiny hands still pointing my own gun at me. I looked again at his stained cheek. I thought about how long it had been since I'd had a blue popsicle. Then I thought about the distance to Red Rock, and pressed down harder on the accelerator.